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The Alchemy Of Stars: Rhysling Award Winners Showcase
editors: Roger Dutcher and Mike Allen
SF Poetry Assoc. / Prime paperback $15

review by Steve Sneyd

Rhysling, blind singer of the spaceways, was a memorable character created by Robert Heinlein, and it was with Heinlein's permission that his name was given to the annual award which in turn has given birth to this handsomely produced volume.

It brings together more than 25 years of winners of the SFPA's awards, nominated by members and voted on by the membership, for outstanding genre poem published in the previous year in two categories, 'short' and 'long'. The period covered is from the very first, those for 1978 up to 2004, with just one gap. Roger Dutcher, who contributes a foreword, explains that he was able to obtain reprint permission for all but one poem, the long form winner of 1981 by Thomas M. Disch. (No reason for the refusal is given - one could perhaps speculate that, since with the years Disch seems increasingly to have sought academic/ literary critic acceptance for his poetry, he perhaps felt that a reminder of his SF associations would be counterproductive in that quest.)

Among the winners whose work is reprinted here, however, are a number of other name SF and fantasy fiction professionals, including Michael Bishop, John M. Ford, Joe Haldeman, Ursula K. Le Guin, Gene Wolfe, and Jane Yolen, who also provides an introduction. There are two other prose accompaniments. Robert Frazier - who wrote the science fiction poetry entry in Clute and Nicholls' Encyclopedia Of Science Fiction - provides an overview of trends and patterns he sees among the winning poems down the decades, contexts, synchronicities, etc - his piece being entitled Alchemical Post-Its - A Rhysling Primer. Suzette Haden Elgin, who founded the SFPA, and the Rhyslings themselves, supplies an afterword.

It would clearly be impractical, given the number of poems here, to mention more than a few, while the need for any attempt at general overview of the contents is thoroughly pre-empted in the Frazier essay already noted. However, two of his general points do need recalling at the start of this review. Firstly, despite the presence of the words science fiction in the awarding organisation's name, from the start Rhysling nominations, and indeed winners, have always included work other than the purely science fictional, and indeed extending well beyond Venning crossovers like science fantasy and science horror. So among winners can be found instances of fantasy of all kinds, dark, light, high, the myth-tributing, etc, as well as horror, and even work which could be regarded as slipstream, quirky, whimsical, magic realist, etc. In fact, nominations and indeed winners have ranged right across what could be called the speculative in poetry (though, given the slipperiness of definition and the difficulty of setting boundary conditions, even that term is capable of provoking endless debate as to what spectrum it in fact covers). Secondly, across the book's timescale paralleling trends in genre fiction, the percentage of winners that are nearer the fantasy than the SF end of the spectrum has grown pretty steadily.

Having noted those general points, it is time for a look at specifics of content, limiting myself, inevitably subjectively, to those winning poems that I find most memorable. If I had to select just two to represent the two poles of SF and fantasy among the winners here, they would be the 1980 long winner. Andrew Joron's enigmatic, endlessly re-interpretable, The Sonic Flowerfall Of Primes, first published in the legendary English magazine New Worlds (indeed, it is the only one of the winners not first seeing print in the continental USA), and Lucius Shepherd's 1980 winner White Trains, which unforgettably gives genre poem response to a long-held American rural 'strange phenomena' folk belief. A selection of others of particular interest in my opinion (and the notable variety of theme and content, as well as style - if not so much of form - in this anthology is sufficient that those of different tastes would, I imagine, be readily able to find as many again appealing to their divergent preferences ) would, in year order, begin with both 1978's tie for the short category winners.

Duane Ackerson's The Starman uses the frequent trope of a returned spaceman finding he has become obsolescent in his absence, but gives it a notably subtle re-minting, while Andrew Joron's Asleep In The Arms Of Mother Night is an enigmatic meditation on the title figure as, "walking in the snow," she "follows the light at the centre of the Earth." Again Joron, The Sonic Flowerfall Of Primes, already mentioned, is - as said - in my opinion, a remarkably inexhaustible poem - I have read this many times, and each reading shows new facets, and permits new explorations, of its recounting of the love/ hate, envy/ worship, relationship of a humanity trapped in a decaying post-technology environment to the overspill of their emotional interactions transmitted by un-crewed orbiting satellite vessels grown creatively sentient, from below their potential viewed as flying treasure houses of scarce resources in insoluble conflict with their role as sources of meaning and inspiration to the ravaged surface hordes.

1982's long winner, Ursula K. Le Guin's The Well Of Baln, is a three-way persona piece, elegantly voicing the mutual alienation of aristocratic father, mother, and daughter, expressed through their divergent responses to, and relations with, the repelling/ alluring structure that gives the poem its title. 1983's long, Adam Cornford's Your Time And You - A Neoprole's Dating Guide, presents a bleakly witty near-future, while 1986's short is a very dark, yet oddly moving, take on the search for consolation after loss of a loved one: The Neighbour's Wife by Susan Palwick, beautifully deadpan in its reported witness, tells of a suburban widower's adoption of a monstrous being, believing it "his wife/ returned as an angel."

Again already mentioned, White Trains realises its manifestation of folktale myth into everyday reality in a small town, with the arrival of one of the enigmatic means of transport of the title. (Such white trains were 'seen' mysteriously traversing the heartland states from the time of Lincoln's assassination on. Arguably, they were the precursor of the black helicopters supposedly over-flying those self-same slowly emptying flyover states, in contemporary conspiracy theorists' belief at the behest of the UN, the 'men in black', and the New World Order, another manifestation which began after the assassination of an iconic US President, in this case JFK.) The poem depicts how couples dressed in elegant but antiquated fashion disembark, dance, and then publicly shamelessly copulate, before mysteriously vanishing. A wiseguy outsider uses his street smarts to parlay this wonder into an everyday source of sex and money, without pausing to consider the possibly overwhelming implications of the mystery for our mundane existence.

1989's long, also a World Fantasy Award winner, John M. Ford's Winter Solstice At Camelot Station, is elegiac Arthurian steam-punk, subtly mid-Atlantic in vocabulary so that its message of inevitable, albeit bravely defied, decay in the polity of idealism is implicitly allowed application as much across the ocean as to the Britain of the King Arthur story's origin.

The 1994 long is a collaboration, a method of working relatively frequent among American genre poets, although all but totally absent among UK equivalents. W. Gregory Stewart and Robert Frazier's Basement Flats narrates how technical problems, followed by budget cuts leading to the abandonment of a time-travel experiment, strand a female geologist in the era of laying down of the Burgess Shale fossil beds. By fossil manipulation, while trapped in that unimaginably distant past she manages to message her abiding love to her fellow-geologist husband remaining in our time. Convincingly avoiding sentimentality while conveying believable emotion, the poem also convinces both at the creative and disbelief-suspension levels (or perhaps, in view of the subject, that word should be strata!).

In 1995, the long winner, David Lunde's Pilot, Pilot, voices the humiliation of a feeble human groundling effortlessly worsted in a confrontation with the post-human superman who is the poem's title figure. The same year's short, Dan Raphael's Skin Of Glass, is a teasingly enigmatic meditation on, in effect, the theme of 'as above, so below'.

The next year's long, Marge Simon's Variants Of The Obsolete, is a rare instance of an extended narrative poem from this writer, and a remarkable one, recounting how remote observation of a mega-avian entity feeding off black hole energy suddenly morphs to unwilled close-up nightmare, the tale being told in swift, perception-jarring jump-cuts.

Much more recently, 2004's long, Theodora Goss' Octavia Is Lost In The Hall Of Masks, to me tightrope-balances over the definitional miasma between prose-poem and mood fiction, but does so unforgettably as it makes word-magic out of an episode as cruel as beauty-punishing fairytale or Jacobean revenge tragedy.

It shouldn't go unmentioned, either, that, since his innumerable awards include the status of being by far the most-times Rhysling winner, enthusiasts for the work of Bruce Boston will find a number of examples here. Personally I do not find, paradoxically, his Rhysling winning poems his most powerfully interesting: if however, I had to choose one of his winners here for mention, it would be the wonderfully titled 1985 short winner, For Spacers Snarled In The Hair Of Comets. Almost fin-de-siècle decadent in its elegantly restrained employment of the spacers' bar reminiscence trope , it steers notably clear of the Hogarthian grotesquerie conventional to film, prose, and verse enjoyments of that setting.

Having earlier mentioned in passing the question of form, as it is to be found in this anthology, finally a brief amplification on that aspect. Although there are strict form exceptions, among them several by fiction pros, like Gene Wolfe's The Computer Reiterates The Greater Trumps (1978 long), Michael Bishop's Marvell pastiche For The Lady Of A Physicist (1979 long), and Joe Haldeman's Saul's Death, a double sestina (1984 long) what could be called the 'default form' is free verse - genre poetry, which came late to making wide use of this, seems still to jib, at least on the evidence of this anthology, at going beyond into more experimental forms.

Those wanting a wide-ranging introduction to the development and achievements of American genre poetry over a quarter century or so, including some real classic highlights, will find this book an invaluable guide. Those who simply enjoy reading poetry with a variety of science fiction, fantasy, and horror content have a treat in store.
Alchemy of Stars

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